Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Deeper Relationship with Garlic

The world is divided over garlic. It has been cultivated by humanity since the dawn of civilization. It has long been a valuable crop, being particularly resistant to both pests and diseases. Despite this, it is long been regarded as a force for both good and evil. Because it repels rabbits, gophers, and insects, European folklore claims that garlic also repels werewolves, vampires, and the forces of evil. Older Christian folklore claims that when Satan left the Garden of Eden, garlic sprung from his left footprint, and onion from his right. It seems that the ancient Asian religions agree with this perspective. Devout followers of Hinduism, Jainism and Shintoism do not consume any plants from the allium family, yet the rest of the world regards garlic as a natural health food.

I can't imagine a diet without the alliums. I eat them raw, cooked, and pickled, chopped, sliced, pureed, marinated, emulsified, roasted and fried. These are also plants that I like to eat and cook at every stage of their life-cycle. This is my first year of growing garlic myself. Armed with enthusiasm, and a copy of Ron Engeland's "Growing Great Garlic," I planted sprouted cloves in early winter. The earliest harvest of garlic, before the bulbs have fully developed, is known as green garlic. In Oregon, we use green garlic in May and June. It looks like a young leek, and you can slice through the entire plant from root to leaf tip. It has a fresh and delicate flavor, very aromatic, and lends a soft touch to the end of a long winter of cooking root vegetables.
Next come the garlic scapes of the hardneck garlic varieties (the rocambole's). This is the young flower stalk, as it curls up from the center of the leaves. If cut before the bulbils begin to form in the spathe, it has a deeper green flavor, not of garlic to me as much as long-cooked peppers and braised kale. By June and July, it is time to harvest the garlic and make way for other crops. This garlic is not cured, but still fresh, soft and moist. It can be sliced and mashed with ease, and it is moister and more aromatic than cured garlic.

Curing garlic takes about two weeks in a warm place with good airflow. The softneck garlic varieties are often braided into long, fancy pigtails during this process. If you want to display these garlic braids, you can weave flowers or decorative ribbons into the braid. I don't go that far, but it looks nice when it is well done. After this stage, the garlic is storable for fall and winter use. This is what most Americans use year round, and most of it comes from China. Also coming from China and Korea is the relatively new tradition of fermented garlic, which is now also produced in California, called black garlic. This garlic is cured over a longer time and at a higher temperature, which results in a deep black flesh that tastes of balsamic, tamarind and molasses. The sweetness and potency of the garlic is very concentrated.
I've always liked using different stages of the same plant in a dish. With garlic, you have a diverse palette of flavors at your disposal. This summer has yielded several garlic entertainments. I really enjoy an appetizer of octopus poached in garlic oil, served with new potatoes and seaweed on a puree of black garlic, and garnished with braised garlic scapes and calendula flowers. It's a nice juxtaposition of delicate flavors with the force of garlic kept on the sweet and earthy side.

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